One of the things I look forward to in Paul’s letters are when he turns autobiographical. To be sure, Paul doesn’t use the majority of his letters to speak of himself, what he’s doing, and what he’s thinking. Typically he spends a lot of time laying out doctrine and most of the rest of his time giving exhortations, like we’ve seen in Romans. But almost inevitably, he provides little glimpses here and there into his mind, heart, and life. And he does that in the text we’re going to look at this morning (Romans 15:14-33).
The reason I like these autobiographical sections in Paul’s letters is because I always feel like they refocus me. When Paul, for example, tells us what is driving his heart and labors, it reminds me of what should be the driving focus of my heart and labors—something that I can lose sight of apart from these helpful opportunities to refocus myself.
So I anticipated being able to do this as I looked ahead to Romans 15:14-33, and as I’ve studied the text this week, it did not disappoint. In fact, let me go a step further; I think our text this morning will allow us as a church to refocus ourselves as a whole on what is our mission, what we need to keep in mind as we relate to one another, what we need to think about those outside our doors who need the gospel, what we do with our finances, and the importance of our prayers. Therefore, this morning I want to lay out for us from Paul’s brief autobiographical section in this letter some crucial reminders of what needs to be on the forefront of our mind, heart, and labor as a church as we see these things in the life of Paul. I’ll lay them out in the form of exhortations. First:
Labor to present your fellow church members as pleasing offerings to God
Paul starts out this section by reminding the Roman believers why he has spoken to them so boldly throughout parts of this letter. He notes in verses 14-15 that though he’s is confident that they are full of goodness and knowledge and able to instruct one another, he’s written boldly because God had called him as an apostle to the Gentiles, and most likely a majority of those making up the church in Rome were Gentiles. Therefore, even though Paul had most likely not met these believers face-to-face, he felt responsibility for them as the apostle to the Gentiles. But he doesn’t just speak of himself as an apostle to the Gentiles. Rather, he pictures himself as a priest.
Here’s what he says in verses 15-16, “But on some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ to the Gentiles in priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.” Thus, Paul pictures himself as a priest, offering up the Gentiles as a pleasing sacrifice to the Lord (a living sacrifice, of course). And just as in the OT, the offering had to be holy and sanctified, so Paul makes it his goal that these Gentiles whom he is offering unto the Lord are sanctified by the Spirit. That is, he longs to present to the Lord a holy group of Gentiles from the church of Rome.
Now, my argument is that this is a good way for us to think of one another as members of a local church, covenanted with one another. Of course, you could push back by saying, “We’re not apostles, like Paul.” That’s true. You might even note that not every member is a pastor, and it is pastors who, according to Hebrews 13:17, will give an account to the Lord on the day of judgment for how they’ve overseen the congregation. However, I still think it’s fair for us to feel the responsibility of thinking of one another in this way that Paul thought of these Gentile believers, and I’ll explain why.
Though the Lord does give elders or pastors to each local church, that doesn’t diminish the responsibility of the congregation toward its own members. For example, Paul can charge the elders in Acts 20 to guard the church from false teaching, but then he tells the church itself in the letter to the Galatians to guard itself from false teaching to the extent that even if Paul were to preach a different gospel, they should consider him accursed. Also, Jesus himself taught us in Matthew 18 that if one is removed from the membership of the church, this isn’t a practice that a few pastors do behind closed doors. Rather, it is the church that is to hear of the unrepentant sin and remove the member. Then, in 2 Corinthians 2, when Paul notes that someone has repented and needs to be forgiven and received back into the church, he does not say this merely to the pastors of the church but to the church as a whole (2 Cor. 2:5-11).
And such is our practice here. The pastors recommend individuals for membership, but it is the church as a whole that receives them. It is the church as a whole that removes them. It is each member of the church that signs a copy of the church covenant, expressing our commitment to covenant together with one another. Why is this important? Wouldn’t it be more efficient for the pastors to make these decisions on who is admitted into membership and who is removed instead of bringing it to the whole church to do? Sure, but something would be missed.
And what would be missed is that as a church, when you receive one into membership, you’re taking upon yourself responsibility for this one’s spiritual growth and perseverance in the faith. You’re owning that responsibility. This is the weight of congregationalism, which we as a church believe the Bible teaches. Consequently, if we see ourselves as responsible for one another’s spiritual growth and perseverance in the faith, then it shouldn’t be odd to think of ourselves as looking at one another in the way that Paul looked at Gentile believers, namely, as responsible to be able to offer each of them to the Lord as one who is a pleasing sacrifice. Therefore, instead of merely seeing your fellow church members as another person who attends church with you on Sundays, think of them as those whom we want to see live lives that are pleasing to the Lord and who persevere in the faith.
Now, obviously, each of you cannot do everything necessary in every single other member’s life to see this happen. This is why we have pastors, and it is why the pastors have seen it as necessary to have small groups. But even though we can’t play the same role in every other member’s life doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think about and feel the responsibility we have for those in covenant with us, even as Paul thought of the Gentiles.
That’s the first thing I want to note, and it does cause us to look inward as a church toward one another. But only looking inward would not fulfill the mission Christ has given us as a church, which brings us to the second exhortation we can draw from Paul’s example.
Plant churches where people need to hear the gospel
In verses 17-21 Paul outlines his work of church planting. He writes, “In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to bring the Gentiles to obedience—by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God—so that from Jerusalem and all the way around Illyricum I have fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ; and thus I make it my ambition to preach the gospel, not where Christ has already been named, lest I build on someone else’s foundation but as it is written, ‘Those who have never been told of him will see, and those who have never heard will understand.”
Now, if we break those sentences down, Paul boasts of the work accomplished through his mission, and feels free to do so because he notes that he is simply speaking of what Christ has accomplished through him in bringing many Gentiles to faith, through the power of the Spirit. And then he names the area where he has “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ,” namely “from Jerusalem and all the way around to Illyricum.”
But it’s here that each commentator on this text I looked at posed a question. And the question is this: How can Paul say that he has “fulfilled the ministry of the gospel of Christ” in this large area he mentioned from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum when there would have been numerous villages and town he had not been to? How can he later say in verse 23 that he “no longer [has] any room for work in these regions” when, again, there would have been so many town, villages, and areas he had not set foot in to preach the gospel.
And they all agree in answering this question by arguing that he planted strategic churches and knew they would complete the work. And I think they’re right. Here’s one commentator, for example:
“He could say that he had completed the preaching of the gospel from Jerusalem to Illyricum only because this statement would have meant for him that the message had been proclaimed and the church planted in each of the nations north and west across Asia Minor and the Greek peninsula—‘proclaimed’ widely enough and ‘planted’ firmly enough to assure that the name of Christ would soon be heard throughout its borders.”i
In other words, Paul knew that he couldn’t reach all the Gentiles who needed reached with the gospel, so he went to areas where he knew the gospel hadn’t been named, and he preached, gathered the converts, planted a church, and helped it become stable before moving on and repeating the process. And by doing this, he did not have to go into every village or town itself because he knew that a church planted firmly upon the Word of God, committed to the gospel, and understanding of its task to obey the Great Commission would reach the areas he did not get to by imitating the very work that Paul had done.
In other words, the great missionary task is the planting of churches. Unless you want the work to end in an area when you leave that area, you plant a church (or churches). And this is our goal as a church in sending out individuals. We long to see churches planted in obedience to the Great Commission, even as Paul modeled for us.
In his excellent little book on missions, Andy Johnson asks the question how each of us can obey Christ’s commend to make disciples who know and obey Christ’s Word. Here’s his answer: “His Word is clear . . . we are to pursue obedience, build up disciples, and plant other churches through the local church. The local church makes clear who is and who is not a disciple through baptism and membership in the body (Acts 2:41). The local church is where most discipling naturally takes place (Heb. 10:24-25). The local church sends out missionaries (Acts 13:3) and cares for missionaries after they are sent (Phil. 4:15-16; 3 John 1-8). And healthy, reproducing local churches are . . . the aim and end of our missionary effort (Acts 15:41; Titus 1:5).”ii
I think he is right, and I think he is mimicking Paul’s missionary strategy in that statement. Missions is done through preaching the gospel and gathering coverts into healthy, reproducing local churches. That was Paul’s aim, and it must be our focus as well as we think about reaching those outside our geographical area.
But Paul also mentions something else that leads to a third exhortation we need to hear:
Put your finances into this glorious work
In verses 22-29, it looks like Paul simply mentions his travel plans. He tells the Roman believers that his work of planting churches from Jerusalem to Illyricum has hindered him from coming to see them, but now he is ready to come see them (vv. 22-23). Specifically he wants to see them on his way to Spain, but first he’s going to Jerusalem to deliver a collection to them that the Gentile churches have taken up to help the financially struggling believers in Jerusalem (vv. 24-29).
But notice something that Paul says about these travel plans: they revolve around finances for the purpose of honoring Christ, fulfilling the Great Commission, and loving the church. He’s not going to Rome yet because the Gentile churches took up and offering to pass on to the church in Jerusalem, and Paul is delivering it. And Paul isn’t shy about the fact that these Gentile churches should do this. He mentions multiple times (vv. 26-27) that they were pleased to do it, but he also notes that they “owe it to them” and “ought . . . to be of service to them in material blessings.”
Moreover, he’s not shy about asking for financial support from the church in Rome. When he says that he is going to enjoy their company for a while, he notes that it is so that he might “be helped on [his] journey” to Spain by them. And by “helped on his journey,” he means supported financially.
Now, why is Paul so brash as to say that the Gentile churches “ought” to help their Jewish church brothers and sisters, and why is he so bold as to come right out and say that he expects the Roman church to give him material support to go to Spain? Here, I think, is the answer. Think of it as a connected series of dots. If you’re a believer, then you’re part of a church. And as part of Christ’s church, you’re responsible to see the Great Commission obeyed by you and those with whom you are part. And fulfilling the Great Commission (which involved obeying all of Christ’s commands) means that the gospel must be taken to areas where churches need to be planted, and brothers and sisters need to be cared for. Therefore, simply being a believer means that you invest your finances in this task. To be a believer who does not want to invest your finances in the work of Christ through his church is like claiming to be a baseball player who isn’t interested in batting, throwing, fielding, or running. It simply is incoherent. That’s why Paul can write in such a way that he is clearly assuming their desire to be financially committed to this work.
And, brothers and sisters, so must we be committed financially in this work. We’re attempting at Cornerstone Community Church to make sure that those who are part of this body are being taught to obey all that Christ commands and that churches are planted outside our walls (often in very strategic—and expensive—places). And all of that takes money.
And there are times that I’m tempted to wish it didn’t take money, but I said that one time in an elders’ meeting and Nathan rebuked me, reminding me that the fact that these things cost money enables each of us to be involved in a deeper way that we otherwise could. It allows us to make sacrifices and trust the Lord. It allows us to feel our need and be moved to pray. So, let us not merely labor to see each other as a sacrifice that is offered to the Lord and pleasing to him and see churches planted in areas outside of our walls but also make sure that we’re investing ourselves financially into this work through the church. But let me note one more exhortation that we must not lose sight of.
Commit yourselves to prayer for this mission
Paul ends this section of text by appealing to the Roman believers to “strive together” with him in prayer (v. 30). He basically lays out everything he’s doing—ministering among unbelievers, delivering the collection to Jerusalem, and going to visit them in Rome—and says, “Pray for this.”
Now, let me put this in context for us. This is Paul asking for prayers that the Lord would do in and through and for him what he desires. This is the same Paul that the Lord Jesus Christ selected before he was ever born to be the authoritative representative of Christ (an apostle) to the Gentiles. This is the same Paul to whom the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ appeared to in the sky and commissioned him for his work. This is the same Paul whom the Spirit moved and gave words to write a good portion of our Bibles so that the very words that Paul wrote were the very words of God. This is the same Paul whom the Spirit directed in his missionary journeys, forbidding him to go to one place and beckoning him to go to another. This is the same Paul who—whether in the body or out of the body—was caught up into heaven and saw things that he could not speak of. This is the same Paul to whom the Lord Jesus Christ appeared in a vision, telling him to keep preaching the gospel in Corinth. And I could go on. But you get the picture. If there was ever a man, just like us, even having to make war with his own sinful tendencies, who had the inside track on Jesus’ directives for him, this would seem to be him. Let me say it this way, if there was ever a man who might be able to convince himself that he didn’t need to pray—which would be foolish, but nonetheless—it would be him. And we find that Paul is not only a man of prayer but that he asks his brothers and sisters in Rome to pray that the plans that the Lord has put in his heart would come to pass.
How much more do we, then, need to be a church that prays that the purposes and plans that we believe the Lord has put in our hearts would come about? We must not assume that the Lord will keep sending us people who will go out and share the gospel but pray to that end. We can’t assume we’ll continue to have people come to us in whom and with whom we can labor to see many come to obey all that Christ commands, we need to pray for that. We can’t assume the Lord will continue to send us and raise up many who want to be sent from us for the sake of church planting and many others who will go with them, we need to pray for that. We can’t assume that the Lord will provide us everything we need here to continue to be a stable, solid, growing, support base for that work, we need to pray for that. And we can’t assume he’ll give us what we need to train, equip, send out, and support many, we need to pray for that. So, let’s be a people who are committed to pray for the mission that the Lord has laid before us.
This morning, we’ll come to the table, remembering Christ’s life, death, and resurrection for us. It is a glorious weekly reminder and celebration we get to partake in. But his life, death, and resurrection also remind us of the seriousness of the mission to which we’re called. Therefore, by faith, as we come to the table this morning, let it be a visible proclamation that we are committing ourselves to these realities that we see exemplified in the life of Paul. Let us imitate the faith of our dear brother Paul, even as he imitated Christ. Amen.
Knox, as quoted by Douglas Moo, Romans, NICNT, 896.
Andy Johnson, Missions: How the Local Church Goes Global (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 26. Johnson helpfully continues, “The church was God’s idea. It is his one and only organizational plan for world missions. . . . Even as we consider our own individual commitment to the global mission, we should do so in the context of our roles as church members. If we are to understand how to pursue the mission faithfully, the local church must be central to identifying, training, sending, and supporting. The mission has been given to Christ’s church for Christ’s glory.”